Kennedy Krieger offers free screenings to infant siblings of children with autism

Kennedy Krieger Institute is offering free screenings for babies between 5 and 10 months old who have older siblings with an autism spectrum disorder. The screenings can detect some early signs that the child might be at risk of developing autism or other developmental disabilities.

One out of five children with a sibling who has autism will have autism, according to Rebecca Landa, director of the Center for Autism and Related Disorders at Kennedy Krieger. Another 30 percent will have language or social delays, Landa said.

By screening these siblings in infancy for some of the warning signs for autism, Landa said, Kennedy Krieger hopes to provide parents with early interventions that can help the children have a better outcome as they grow up.

“At the level we’re at right now with the science, we’re not able to diagnose autism in babies this age,” Landa said. “. . . We’re trying to make the point to parents and professionals that babies who have a family history of autism should be followed developmentally from a young age, and followed often.

“A lot of times people think with babies that everything is going to happen the way it should because they are following the developmental benchmarks, but there are subtle things that are yellow flags,” she said.

During the screenings, which take about two hours, developmental experts look at a baby’s motor, language, cognitive and social development. Babies in that age range should be starting to babble, respond to their names and understand gestures, Landa said. They should be making eye contact and smiling socially. Screeners also check the child’s coordination and motor skills, such as sitting independently. Parents get results immediately.

If the infant shows any signs of having a developmental disorder, Landa said, parents can sign up to have Kennedy Krieger continue to monitor the child every six months. They will also give the parents information on early intervention programs and specific toys, games and activities that can develop babies’ coordination or early social skills.

“Where kids really learn is when you engage them with things that they like and also when you give them challenges that are within the realm of possibility for them, but they have to work a little bit to accomplish it,” Landa said.

To stimulate development if your child shows signs of a delay, parents should avoid electronic devices and toys that involve batteries, Landa said. Songs and other interactive games promote social engagement, and putting desirable toys just out of reach can inspire a baby to work hard to get the toy. Landa likes toys from One Step Ahead, generally. Rattles, rubber duckies and board books with simple photographs are all inexpensive toys that can teach babies cause and effect and how to explore their environment.

“I don’t want to make parents anxious or worried, because it’s really important for them to have fun with their babies and enjoy their babies,” Landa said. “It’s just important to keep a watchful eye, and we want them to know there are things they can do to help nurture their baby’s healthy development.”

The program is open to parents in the District, Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania and West Virginia who have an older child with an autism spectrum disorder. Landa said she hopes it will become a model that other practices around the country will adopt. Landa said this testing, if parents had to pay out of pocket, would normally cost between $750 and $1,000.

For information on getting your baby screened at Kennedy Krieger, visit www.autism.kennedykrieger.org.

Mari-Jane Williams covers parenting and family issues for Local Living and schools for the Prince William and Loudoun Extras.
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